Universal Fan Con: Peeling Back the Layers
April 25, 2018 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Universal Fan Con was meant to be a celebration of inclusivity and fandom. But as the show was unceremoniously canceled a week before it was expected to occur, fans are asking what happened. Many find themselves left out of pocket, having backed the Kickstarter and booked often non-refundable flights. We, Rosie Knight and Jazmine Joyner, have compiled a comprehensive investigation into Universal Fan Con and what went wrong. posted by rewil (81 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm still surprised that people didn't see a disaster coming; they only raised $56K in the kickstarter, but were renting the Baltimore Convention Center and throwing around 10K attendance estimates. From the bits that have been coming out about Pham, it's likely that he's a serial scammer, but even if they had been totally honest, it would have crashed and burned. To give you an idea of the scale, Worldcons in the US usually run around 5K attendees. Here's a breakdown of ConJose 2002's budget, which was *$850,000*. And that was 16 years ago! $56K would have been a decent starter budget for a small, hotel based convention with low to mid hundreds attendance.
posted by tavella at 3:45 PM on April 25, 2018 [19 favorites]


Very much the right post.
posted by Artw at 3:46 PM on April 25, 2018


To give you an idea of the scale, Worldcons in the US usually run around 5K attendees. Here's a breakdown of ConJose 2002's budget, which was *$850,000*:

This is wild to me. If I'm reading this right, these cons typically cost close to a million dollars for attendance of about 5,000 people? It's amazing anyone tries to put these on!
posted by lunasol at 3:55 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


If they didn't make a profit nobody would do it.
posted by Splunge at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


FWIW the cost of an attending membership to this year's Worldcon is $230. I couldn't find last year's price, but the number of attendees last year numbered ~7k, and on top of that you get a few thousand people who buy supporting (non-attending) memberships at around $50 a pop. But this is a very large and well-established fan convention.
posted by inconstant at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yeah, those Kickstarter tiers are nuts both in terms of what you would expect to pay at cons and what you would expect to see on Kickstarter I. Terms of rewards for the money. A lot of the time for comics projects, for instance, $25 is where the first years that snag you a physical copy of the product start - here it gets you a whole con weekend.
posted by Artw at 4:14 PM on April 25, 2018


Worldcons are non-profit, and are run primarily with volunteer labor. The budget for the giant commercial cons must be in the tens of millions, I'm sure.
posted by tavella at 4:15 PM on April 25, 2018 [7 favorites]


universal
fan
con


does what it says on the tin
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:16 PM on April 25, 2018 [47 favorites]


If it helps with perspective on what vendors normally face:

I did my first turn at an author table for a comic con just two weekends ago at Wizard World in Portland. The table fee for a 10'x10' space was $700. That's before any travel expenses, building up your signs and such, and of course producing your products. Wizard World is a well-established show that travels around the country, so while it's not one of the majors it should give a decent ballpark. Once upon a time, I was a convention vendor's boyfriend, which basically made me a con vendor. She/we did mostly smaller shows like regional sci-fi conventions and such; those fees were still anywhere between $300-$400 for a table, sometimes more depending on the show.

It can be really hard to make back the cash it takes to vend at a show. It's one thing if the show is in your back yard and you can commute from home, but past that? This stuff can be really tight. A lot of convention-goers show up without a lot of cash to begin with, because they threw all they had into just getting there in the first place, too. And then you face the Wal-Mart effect of everyone assuming your products should be super cheap, even if it's hand-made artwork or costumes or whatever. Vendors are generally predisposed to price their stuff at a far lower point than it really should be.

That Wizard World show? I split that table with two other authors knowing I wouldn't make a profit. I did it as an experiment to see how it would go because I could afford to write off the whole thing if I didn't sell a single book (turns out I did better than I expected but no way did I turn a profit).

Then I came home and a day or two later I saw all this breaking on Twitter. All I could think about was how so many hotel and travel arrangements are non-refundable. My stomach about fell through the floor when I thought of how many artists and other vendors were probably screwed by this.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 4:19 PM on April 25, 2018 [30 favorites]


I am just really curious about who hired Tom Leonard and how much a Twitter bot makes as a marketing and sales VP.
posted by rewil at 4:22 PM on April 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


There are definitely small local cons that get by with $25 memberships (at least as an early-bird price) -- I know of one that's eight years running so far. But it's very low-key for sure, not so much with the celebrity photo ops, mostly attracting, well, locals.
posted by inconstant at 4:29 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


I am just really curious about who hired Tom Leonard and how much a Twitter bot makes as a marketing and sales VP.

RIGHT i can't believe i didn't know this career path was open to me
posted by poffin boffin at 4:29 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Spike Trotman has thoughts.

Though I guess this one...

I'm reluctant to attribute to evil what can be explained as stupidity, and again, fully admitting to the very real possibility I Don't Know Shit? That's what Universal Fan Con feels like, to me.

I think these ppl just REALLY WANTED the prestige of running a con, & were clueless.


May seem a little more like wishful thinking given some of the stuff coming out.
posted by Artw at 4:29 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


For example, their $10 pledge level, which had 275 backers, included: a Saturday pass to Universal Fan Con, a Photo Op with a celebrity guest, a digital copy of the Universal Fan Con Commemorative Program, and a personal thank you note from the Fan Con Team.

For $35, you could get the same package but with a weekend pass for the show. That was the most backed tier, with 361 people supporting the con at that level.


Saturday is your big day. Celebrity meets, ie with people who actually are on TV and stuff, are expensive add ons. I’ve paid $25 for a small con before but it’s usuall mre in the nature of a bunch of people with tressle tables flogging photocopied zines in a pretty small hall.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on April 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


I keep hearing about stories about new conventions that fall apart spectacularly, but has anybody actually attempted to throw off a brand new con like this that was intended to be attended by, say, more than a thousand people in its first year and actually succeeded? The whole premise seems so wildly implausible to me.
posted by Sequence at 4:47 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


If they didn't make a profit nobody would do it.

In a first year con? Only if they're foolish or predatory, and the Universal Fan Con team seems to have been a mix of both. People with actual experience running a con know that you should count yourself lucky if you manage to break even on the first event - that if you keep the first one small, local, and realistically budgeted, you can build towards becoming profitable in future years. (I've been very proud of the tiny but dedicated fandom of Diane Duane's 'Young Wizards' book series, which managed to run a very nice first-year con in Newark NJ in 2016, with attendance capped at a couple hundred people.)

This reminds me of the FedCon USA 2008 con failure, though Universal Fan Con is more of a heartbreaker because it took advantage of an already vulnerable community, and has more of an 'affinity scam' element to it.
posted by oh yeah! at 4:51 PM on April 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


I’m looking forward to this coming to trial and the organizers’ only defense is “we said it was a con”.
posted by w0mbat at 4:57 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


GeekGirlCon scaled up really quickly, but I think their first con was relatively low key - basically a couple of meeting rooms off of the KEXP building? The year after that it went to the convention center and then basically doubled the square footage it took up each year until it now takes up its present size.
posted by Artw at 4:58 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


Oof. I feel for the vendors, backers, and everyone else who spent time, money, or mental energy towards what is looking more and more like a con than dreamers reaching for the stars and coming up short.

For the past few years here in Salem, we've had someone attempt a Salem Occult Arts Convention. Being an Occult Artist based in Salem, I was really keen for this show. I missed the signups the first time around, but that didn't matter as the con never manifested, but was on board for the second time around. I sent no money, but marked the day for when vendor registration opened on my calendar and made sure the dates of the con were kept clear.

Until I was involved with a different con in Salem this past October. This convention, a UFO convention called Paraween, really opened my eyes to the sketch that can get wrapped into conventions. Previously, I had vended at established festivals and did pretty well, but since I also do a lot of medieval woodcut styled alien abduction art, I figured this would be a great way to meet my people and a nice way of vending during October in Salem when most vending ops are $$$. Paraween was on $$, but it was pricey and hey, Travis "Fire in the Sky" Walton would be there! It was the second year of the event being in Salem and the year before they were taking around a mummified grey for photo ops at local spots, so I figured this was legit. Also, it was inside. I was set up across from a guy who handmade spirit boards, next to a ghost hunting team from New York, and next to a woman who made coasters from old comics - so a good fit at my corner. (Less so the other end of the room which had a guy selling homemade soda and a giant empty table for the event speakers)

Turns out Paraween pretty much was/is a vanity project for one of the speakers, Thom Reed. The people putting on the event were his agents. They had no idea what they were doing. But they did manage to get a bunch of vendors to come to Salem, pay wacky October hotel prices, and then sit around an empty vendor room that was not only a few hallways away from the speakers' hall, but was also "open to the public" provided the public knew about it and were not turned off by the giant banners saying the event cost $50. They had some sort of street team, but they just sat on the patio outside for an hour in the morning before wandering away, leaving promotional effort to the wind which took a bunch of fliers and blew them down the street. Without any help from the people running the con (they either wandered off or had to go pick up speakers from their distant hotels - Travis Walton didn't roll in until 5 minutes before he was to speak and after than slept at his signing table because there was nobody there. He only snored a few times.), we tried to wrangle some people in, but to little success. The con staff only showed up when the vendors all decided that enough was enough and packed it in some 3 hours before the event was supposed to end.

I barely made my money back, mostly selling to fellow vendors (my people!) but after that, began to turn a hard eye on every new/small event I looked into hauling my stuff to. Some, like the Jewelry City Steampunk Festival worked out well - I knew one of the vendor staff and knew she would not put up with any shit, and it turned out to be pretty fun. But! You can be sure I did as much online investigation possible into the event and the people running it.

I did the same for the Salem Occult Arts convention and boy howdy did I turn up a lot of bad faith (heh). The venue they claimed to have booked had not heard of them. Given that the House of the Seven Gables is a venue you have to sign up for in advance, this couldn't be an oversight. I spoke with some local witchy contacts (tour guides and the like) and they had no idea who the people putting the event on were. There had been no local outreach or promotion and research into the other vendors showed they were all from out of town, which is fine, but you'd think someone based in the Witch City would sign on, right? Especially given the extreme scramble it is to get your work up on the walls of local establishments come tourist season.

More digging turned up some weird math which was made worse/weirder when the convention organizer could not even maintain the low standards for an IndieGoGo campaign and started to solicit fees and ticket presales straight to her PayPal. At that point, I started asking questions ("Hey, so I'm an artist based in Salem and asked at the House of the Seven Gables and they have not heard of this event. What's up?") and was promptly blocked from the event page. I heard a few weeks back that, again, the event has collapsed. Still, on the plus side, this has prompted me and a few local artists poking at the Satanic Temple that maybe we would put something on there.

So, uh, what I am saying is, vendors for these conventions need to keep their third eye open and at the first sign of weirdness, start asking questions. If the event is new and small, they still should have someone to answer them. If not, or if the answers keep changing, then they need to walk ASAP. The closer you get to these events, the fewer alternative options you have. My event vending time is limited - more than one a month risks spousal wrath - and while I have been lucky enough that I can risk an occasional dud, I can't risk a hassle-dud due to sketch.

I'd like to support new/emerging events, but every time one of these sketchy ones goes down (ball pit!) or fails to happen, that gets a bit harder. As you can see from the Wall of Text above, these things tend to haunt vendors after the fact!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:59 PM on April 25, 2018 [50 favorites]


I keep hearing about stories about new conventions that fall apart spectacularly, but has anybody actually attempted to throw off a brand new con like this that was intended to be attended by, say, more than a thousand people in its first year and actually succeeded? The whole premise seems so wildly implausible to me.

Denver Comic Con started in 2012 with about 28,000 in attendance at the Colorado Convention Center, and it's still going today. It's run by a literacy through sequential art non-profit that organized in 2010. So it can happen, but apparently people underestimate the amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into starting a convention. (I imagine not being on the East Coast helped in this case -- there's a heck of a lot more competition if you're setting up in Baltimore.)
posted by rewil at 5:03 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also somewhat speaking against this being a scam and more of a fuck up, Black Girl Nerds, the site at the center of it all, is a serious ongoing concern and not some fly by night pop-up that came out of nowhere. Now their reputation is trashed and I susect it may be the end of them, which seems like an odd thing to deliberately do.
posted by Artw at 5:11 PM on April 25, 2018 [9 favorites]


I did my first turn at an author table for a comic con just two weekends ago at Wizard World in Portland. The table fee for a 10'x10' space was $700. That's before any travel expenses, building up your signs and such, and of course producing your products.

The roomie also did a first turn as a vendor tabling for her Vulcan calligaphy stuff at a local gaming/comics/general nerd con here at HavenCon, which is a local fourth-year convention I've watched since its first year. We got to sit by an experienced, cheery veteran who makes art and wooden carvings and gave us all the good gossip, and while I think the roomie's stuff did well for a first pass tabling... well, she about broke even, if I remember right, and that was for a small local con in pretty much our back yards. And they are very clearly still, four years in, learning and experiencing growing pains and dealing with trying to attract content, vendors, and attractions.

Breaking even was the goal for this round--as a learning experience, and figuring out what works--but it's hard to figure out where you can be profitable as a vendor with a niche market, and price-setting is very difficult, too.

More specifically to this particular con, I'm heavily reminded of the shitshow that was DashCon back in 2011. Have people started making jokes about the ball pit yet?
posted by sciatrix at 5:13 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


My wife organized a craft/fashion convention with several other people in Austin called Stitch Austin which ran for 5 years and the stories she tells about that experience.

It taught her boss moves at event planning and people coordinating, though.

Based on her stories I just can’t fathom the ego it takes for a group to expect that year one they are gonna top out 10K people in attendance.
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:25 PM on April 25, 2018




I've done cons as gofer, staff, presenter, and vendor. (Have also just been an attendee plenty of times.) For most conventions, none of those roles get paid. Convention money goes for
  • Renting the public spaces of the hotel
  • Insurance costs
  • Hotel rooms for higher-up staff (in some cons, this is bare-bones 1-4 people; in others, it's most staff members. Most lean toward the former - the con only pays for the rooms of people who are specifically essential for running the show.)
  • Catered events or snacks - Friday night meet-the-guests reception, kibble in the consuite, coffee & donuts in the green room for guests
  • Supplies for any party-like event - DJ and decorations for a dance, lights & sound equipment for a masquerade; awards to hand out
  • Publications: program books; website; newsletters; promo postcards, etc.
  • GoH hotel, travel, per diem
  • Misc tech equipment and office supplies, including on-hand medical supplies
Some of these are much more substantial than others. A small con with good negotiation skills and a sympathetic site could manage on a few thousand dollars (promising the hotel that they'll make money in room rentals and meal fees, so they can ignore most of the site costs for an otherwise non-busy weekend), but it'd take careful finance juggling for that to work.

$56k could allow a decent convention with good planning, on a non-peak weekend at a site that was just happy to get the business. But with that tight a budget, there are just so many ways it could go wrong, starting with the "digital program book" - plenty of those people would show up and want one in paper, assuming that membership of course includes that, and the digital version is an extra bonus for k'start backers. And the tighter the budget, the more careful the administration needs to be; they need to have figured out the roadblocks in advance and found workarounds for them, or even without being a scam, the convention will flop horribly. (See also: Ball pit.)

Of course, $56k can also be "the convention's printing budget;" full-color full-bleed fliers and program books aren't cheap. Budgets will expand to fit the dollars thrown at them.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


I just can’t fathom the ego it takes for a group to expect that year one they are gonna top out 10K people in attendance.

For many years, fan cons topped out at about 2500 people, with the occasional exception of "WorldCon in a tourist zone." (ConFrancisco 93 had over 7k people.) 1000-2000 was a solid, good-sized convention - that's enough people to mostly fill the hotel without needing multiple sites; large enough to have some inertia; small enough that faces look familiar after a couple of years. Small conventions were 250-500 people; below that was niche conventions: filk conventions, slash conventions, conventions dedicated to obscure tv shows or single pairings within those shows.

Then ComicCon happened, and DragonCon, and many younger fans think "normal" conventions are 20k people (after all, mainstream news doesn't mention anything smaller) - so they planned for "a half-sized con: 10,000 people."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:37 PM on April 25, 2018 [16 favorites]


On the other hand, $56K would probably buy a hell of a ball pit.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 5:37 PM on April 25, 2018 [38 favorites]


> Also somewhat speaking against this being a scam and more of a fuck up, Black Girl Nerds, the site at the center of it all, is a serious ongoing concern and not some fly by night pop-up that came out of nowhere.

As the Women Write About Comics page lay it out, it seems like there are two loosely-defined groups: The BGN-affiliated people and a bunch of behind-the-scenes people with various sorts of backgrounds that don't look on the up-and-up; The "VP of Marketing" is a MLM whiz running social media bots, the "VP of Operations" has a history of setting up fundraisers for conventions that collapse before they occur, the "VP of Public Relations" is a wannabe self-help guru. It smells of the latter group using the former group and ghosting with most of the proceeds.

If you're marveling at the organizers' presumption that $56k would be sufficient to run a convention, keep in mind that their Kickstarter goal was $25k.
posted by ardgedee at 5:41 PM on April 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


On the budget: I helped start a small con on the SF-fan-run model, but not actually for SF. The first one in 2011 had about 180 people, this year's had over 700, and they're about to move hotels to get more space. (I was hotel chair the first few years.)

Our initial budget was something like $10K-12K, and we came in under budget, but we both were very pragmatic in the planning, made use of some existing good relationships with the hotel we ended up using, and were really cautious about guests. We also expected to start small and grow, and there was an existing local organisation with single day event experience, so we had volunteers and people to tap for some specific skills.

For a small con, space is expensive, and guests are expensive. There are some solutions for space, in that model.
(Basically, you're working with three things: fee for use of the big convention spaces, room nights, and food functions. I strongly believe food functions scale best and are the easiest to adjust to your actual attending people if you're new and don't know about numbers yet. We did an afternoon tea, which also worked great for options for people with specific dietary needs.)

But guests, oh, guests are expensive. Name guests at a bare minimum want their expenses covered (travel, hotel, a per diem for food). Even if you're not paying them, a single guest is easily $1000 or more a lot of the time for 3 nights + plane + food. Tech and sound equipment, also very expensive. It's really easy for both to balloon hugely if someone isn't specifically aware of how to manage them.

I've seen notes suggesting part of the issue was failing to hit room night commitments (also extremely expensive: basically, the convention commits to paying for those rooms even if they don't fill, as part of the contract.) That's a piece of the puzzle a lot of people don't understand, and again, pretty easy to work around if you know it's an issue (and are okay with the tradeoffs you make other places to do that).
posted by modernhypatia at 5:41 PM on April 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


$56K would have been a decent starter budget for a small, hotel based convention with low to mid hundreds attendance.

My work runs a 3 day science conference for about 250 attendees every year. This amount is very close to what we spend/recover in fees. We break even or so, year on year.
posted by bonehead at 5:58 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


I was signed up for the artist alley for this-- that's $250 I'm almost certainly not getting back-- and I've been following the whole mess on Twitter since Friday. Fortunately, people are rallying and some absolute rock stars have put together a pop-up con on Saturday, but the fallout from this is probably going to keep going for a while.
posted by nonasuch at 7:09 PM on April 25, 2018 [14 favorites]


Something other than boardgames that turned out to be Kickstarter garbage...?

What a fucking surprise.
posted by Windopaene at 8:14 PM on April 25, 2018


But it's very low-key for sure, not so much with the celebrity photo ops, mostly attracting, well, locals.

I am co-organizer of a regional indy con, and I am stuck trying to explain that constantly to my friends. We don't have the budget of a large con! We don't get the celebrity photo ops! And we definitely can't offer everyone who volunteers a free membership -- the people who want to attend are typically the people who would volunteer at a Comic Con.

(On the other hand -- we do have room parties, we do have after-hours socialization, and we are a con where people talk! We're a summer camp, not Disney World. And summer camp is fun in its own way and delightful, if that's what you're expecting, and it's honestly something I'd prefer, particularly if I'm not going home immediately afterwards. And that's something that Universal Fan Con could have aspired towards, had they thought about it.)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:17 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


I help in a very loose way with a conference that's a few thousand people - not anything like 10k and the budget on that is astonishing, but they really deliver and have a professional staff running everything. Can't even imagine.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:13 PM on April 25, 2018


Peter, Kyndal and I discussed the sponsorship opportunity: it was a guest speaking situation with Michelle Obama for the first night of the con. Based on Peter’s account, they wanted a sponsor that the Obama team could vet and pay for the speaking event.

Oh.
Come.
On.

This was a scam. It probably wasn't the kind of greedy-line-my-pockets scams that people expect when they hear "scam" but the kind of scam perpetrated by emotional leeches who want to suck up all the time, attention, and resources of people in the community.
posted by muddgirl at 10:18 PM on April 25, 2018 [11 favorites]


And of course they always hide behind supposed naivety.
posted by muddgirl at 10:18 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Still can't believe one of their officers was a fucking bot.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:50 PM on April 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Reading the article, it's clear that the con com were far too ambitious (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and not say they were out of their minds). $35 for a day pass AND a photo op? An autograph for a beloved 80s sci-fi TV star costs $20 at least, a photo obviously more. So, right there the con has lost AT LEAST the price of a 1-day pass. At $75 they were giving away LIFETIME weekend passes. So, they were actually lucky they didn't advertise their Kickstarter better and the con failed now, because they would have had one year and then thousands of people showing up in later years without paying a red cent.

There is a large (6000 people) regional convention in the Twin Cities that has been running for years, it runs 3 days and currently costs $75 if you register very early, but that includes basically free geek food through that time (free coffee drinks, a room where there is fresh white or brown rice and toppings, a room with peant butter and jelly, a room with soup or some sort of stew and sometimes things like giant muffins/pizza/sub sandwiches/other treats). Part of this is subsidized by a large number of "party rooms" in the middle of the convention that serve free alcohol after a certain time of night. There are no numbers on this, but probably a good percentage of the con members are there mostly for the parties and not the panels. A few years ago the convention decided to make the party area badged con space and thus started to make a lot of money - thus able to pick up much better guests.

They probably should have gone the "Wizard World" route the first year - a fan expo which uses an agency to bring in guests (like I mentioned above - people who haven't been on TV for decades and have semi-retired to the con circuit) to sign autographs and smile for photos. The con might have picked up a small profit then and they could have shifted to their professed fan panel focus.

Also interesting - the people who used to be "co-founders" of the convention and others suddenly have no idea who was handling the finances. Noone seems to know who signed the contracts, did the negotiations, or was overseeing these things. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they didn't (and how can we believe that, though?), why would the concom NOT have wanted to keep an eye on the con's finances? The article also mentions that the convention was incorporated and that there are 25K shares. I realize the con has no money, but who has the shares and what did they do to get those shares? Did they buy them? Were they handed out as ways to get people paid but still claim to be volunteers only? DId anyone divest themselves of their shares if they did have any - and if so did they get any compensation for them?

It's been claimed that con com members spent $300K of their own money on this con. Who has $25K, $50K, $100K to throw at a first-year con that is intended to be non-profit? Bill Gates? Sean Hannity? That's what you call someone who is serious about their fandom, I guess.

I guess the lesson here is: do your research before you try something. Shooting for the moon usually means you'll end up crashing in Cleveland. Aim for Philly, at least. They really had no excuse. There are plenty of good-sized cons they could have learned from. If you want to run a fine restaurant you go work in lots of them to see how things really work. They could have volunteered for Emerald City, for CONvergence, for lots of successful cons and picked the brains of the con committees to see how it should be done. There is no excuse. The people involved were supposedly knowledgeable in fan communities and content /community creators, it's not like they were just a couple of kids who cashed in their Dogecoins and decided to get some cool guests for a weekend party.

I feel sorry for the people who are actually hurt by this - people who took time off from work, who can't get their flight money back, guests who cleared their schedule, exhibitors who allocated time for these dates (and the extra time for load-in and out)... but I also wonder when the con was actually going to tell anyone there was not going to be a con? What if the hotels hadn't sent out cancellation emails, or waited until a couple of days before? What if the hotel hadn't cancelled at all? Can you imagine being en exhibitor with a trailer of stuff checking in the day before the con and not being able to reach anyone to find out where to put your stuff? Can you imagine bringing a couple of kids, checking in at the hotel, getting up nice and early to go resgister - only to find no con in sight?

But somehow they had the balls to invite people to come watch a movie with them anyway.
posted by Docrailgun at 10:59 PM on April 25, 2018 [6 favorites]


What a weird story. $56k isn't enough to pull this off and you'd think anyone could see the kickstarter deals didn't make sense, even to the people paying. But it's also not enough to work this hard to scam for.
How many people are listed in this story? If they didn't spend a dime they'd get a few grand a piece? That's not a great scam. And yet there seem to be some scammy people involved.

I don't get it.
posted by bongo_x at 11:05 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


The article also mentions that the convention was incorporated and that there are 25K shares. I realize the con has no money, but who has the shares and what did they do to get those shares? Did they buy them? Were they handed out as ways to get people paid but still claim to be volunteers only? DId anyone divest themselves of their shares if they did have any - and if so did they get any compensation for them?

The leaked email mentions "affiliates" - this is MLM talk and one of the people connected(?) to the con has MLM experience, so if I had to take an educated guess, they sold "shares" to "affiliates" and then they were supposed to sell tickets and they'd get their money back + profit. This also would be in like with the frankly crazy-sounding schemes floated on twitter like the Ravens buying 1,000 tickets and donating them to underpriviledged youth.

I talked myself back around to this being a regular old money scam.
posted by muddgirl at 11:20 PM on April 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's been claimed that con com members spent $300K of their own money on this con. Who has $25K, $50K, $100K to throw at a first-year con that is intended to be non-profit? Bill Gates? Sean Hannity? That's what you call someone who is serious about their fandom, I guess.

I normally think fandom has been really good for me and has a lot of positives, mind, but it's helpful to be aware that we're vulnerable to that kind of thing, because even if your social group hasn't come up with a terrible $300k convention disaster idea, it might come from the same sort of place as when I see people on Discord messaging about "RIP wallet" when yet another figurine gets released from their favorite show even though they're struggling to make ends meet because everybody else is ordering it. Or like--I've gamed with people who treated failing classes because of gaming as normal, which was nearly very destructive to me. Or staying up until 3am even when you have a kid who needs to leave for school by 7:30am. I find fandom communities to be very supportive of mental health issues, but also sometimes prone to feedback loops about unhealthy behaviors, and excessive spending is definitely one of them.

Like, I once had two friends who were prone to "oops I couldn't really afford $200 worth of merch this month" issues sort of sync up and talk themselves into an "oops we both spent our bank accounts down to overdrawn and one of us nearly got stuck a thousand miles from home" scale travel disaster before I even realized they were in trouble, and I feel super bad for not trying to intervene just to have SOME voice in that conversation going "hey but what if you just wait and go next year". This is probably one of the more believable parts to me.
posted by Sequence at 11:58 PM on April 25, 2018 [11 favorites]


They could have volunteered for Emerald City, for CONvergence, for lots of successful cons and picked the brains of the con committees to see how it should be done. There is no excuse.

Hell, there's other options, too. They could have put in their time (a year, two years) at a struggling local con (there are a ton of us, sadly!) and then asked for their own programming track. (*) Another year or two more and they would have had control over a con (that was likely to shut down already) with pre-existing infrastructure and probably several years left on a hotel contract. They could have done what a few cons have already done -- start out with a track at DragonCon for a year or two, then kicked off their own con in Atlanta.

They didn't just want to start their con from scratch. They picked the hardest (and, quite frankly, worst) model - that of a large media con - that they could find. I almost feel wonder if anyone in charge has ever been to a small-scale con if their first thought was to offer any photo op as a reward on a Kickstarter. Why are you promising to bring in celebrities? Why not just focus on your programming and then go from there?

(*) They could have combined the two strategies! CONvergence is only the biggest con in Minneapolis. There are other cons in Minneapolis, too! Find one of them, start volunteering, and show you can attract lots of interest!
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:00 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Nine Worlds (a UK pro-diversity con) has been very successful from what I've heard after starting from a kick-starter about 5 years ago... and they were charging £65 for a basic pass back then, so these people were either very badly informed or con artists.

Putting on something for the first time is hard.... to be successful you basically need the money for all your fixed costs before you go out seeking ticket money so if even if you undersell you won't crash and burn. Then you put aside enough money for the next one etc.

People used to moan if was just an elite SMOF running cons... but sometimes experience does count.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I’ve been behind the scenes of a convention whose only goal was to “teach secret life skills” and upsell a huge secret life skills package with a retail price of a Kia Soul once all “discounts” were applied. 300-400 attendees, about half who paid $1500 each for attending (not including $250 a night hotel room for 3-4 days, meals, flights).

Convention budget was $250,000 and they “broke even”. Most speakers had their rooms and meals paid, some flights, plus an honorarium... and junior speakers just rooms and meals.

A paid staff* of about 20 ran the whole thing, 7am to 11pm five days straight (plus year long planning) plus a hired in camera and lights crew (to sell live remote access and after the fact videos).

*Paid staff were from the SLS company and worked making and selling SLS products 365 So their salaries are not part of the $250k budget
posted by tilde at 4:58 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Has the latest Universal Fan Con statement/excuse been posted somewhere? Sounds like they're still in 'keep digging that hole deeper' mode. From Mark Oshiro's twitter at 7:41 PM - 25 Apr 2018: man, who else just got that TRASH email from the Universal FanCon folks? it is 100% useless and it also vaguely references all the stuff OTHER PEOPLE organized to make up for their mistakes, yet doesn't link to any of it??? what in the hell.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:23 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


I see some discussion over "was this a scam or a fuckup" and as some have pointed out, "both" covers a lot of possibilities. In addition to the likelihood that there were a mix of scammers and well-intended greenhorns involved, accidental fuckups aren't always followed up by doing the right thing -- from the time I spent following indie cosmetics businesses, I can tell you straight up that there have been a lot of times where a small business owner fucked up (precipitated by external misfortunes or otherwise) and then tried to hide things and keep going, which of course almost always led to snowballing WTFery and a lot of bad feeling on top of the dissolution of the business (which was not in the least staved off by being reflexively/protectively dishonest). Did these owners start out trying to scam people? Extremely unlikely! But they ended up trying to deceive people anyway in the service of frantically trying to sweep their mistakes or falterings under the rug.
posted by inconstant at 6:39 AM on April 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


It's been claimed that con com members spent $300K of their own money on this con. Who has $25K, $50K, $100K to throw at a first-year con that is intended to be non-profit? Bill Gates? Sean Hannity? That's what you call someone who is serious about their fandom, I guess.

Am I the only one who's reminded of classic cons in the confidence-game sense? The con men always tell the mark they've invested So Much of their own money, and are only sharing the opportunity because the mark is so very special and deserving. I'd be surprised if more than $100K of that was real, and that probably invested by the fandom-facing people involved after they were shown "proof" their dodgy partners had already invested much more.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:18 AM on April 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


The first Anime Boston was an overwhelming success, gathering over 4,000 warm bodies in 2003, near the zenith of the "an anime con every weekend" era. I attribute that, however, to really good planning by an established and entrenched New England-area anime community that really wanted a convention in Boston.

I know a gal who is running her own "for-profit-ish" sci-fi/fantasy cons. When I interviewed her for my blog, she said that she and her then-husband went $20,000 into debt on her credit cards to hold their first event where they had lots of local-area pros. Now? Her team just finished holding ReGeneration Who, where Peter Capaldi was a guest of honor.

In other words, it can be done, but I can't stress enough that a con needs to start small and have a solid team behind it before it can get bigger.

As for the recommendations upstream from what appear to be fellow Twin Cities folks, I would LOVE to see more diverse programming at CONvergence, the local science fiction/fantasy convention. My co-head and I definitely made that a focus when we chose who our Invited Participants would be and once we have this first year as co-heads under our belts, you betcha I am going to be more actively recruiting from the list of folks who were listed as speakers or presenters or backers and/or artist alley folks who were caught unawares by UniversalFanCon and asking them to apply to be IPs and panelists for next year and future years.
posted by TrishaLynn at 8:16 AM on April 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'm sort of curious how a local small biannual comic con will deal with the fallout from last fall when they somehow managed to completely overbook their space. Like "there's a 3 hour line for entry because they hit the fire code maximum occupancy" overbooked. Which is good! There's interest! But was it just a weird one-shot thing, or do they need to look at getting more space going forward (and will they be able to without blowing up the budget too much that it kills the affair)? Did the immediate fallout poison their fanbase, or will people try again? Honestly if it wasn't for the $5 nonrefundable parking the venue demands... The organizers did manage it fairly well on social media, but you know there's going to be some ill will.

(from what I can tell it's a small mostly vending affair that doesn't really attract D listers, they're getting like E and F listers. Which is fine! If people want to hang out with the artist who colored a panel of a Deadpool limited edition in 2013, that's their thing.)
posted by Kyol at 9:48 AM on April 26, 2018


In a wiki walk from the FedCon USA link, I discovered some excerpts from a 2009 Strange Horizons essay, "Let's Stop Conning Ourselves" by Patience Wieland. It had me at the first blockquote:
In our stratified little communities, news of these failures often brings up memories of another. Remember, we ask each other, when that British TV show's official fan club disappeared, without fulfilling their magazine subscriptions? Didn't the same happen with that literary press, who published all those magazines? How about that fanzine agent who stopped sending orders? What about that famous anthology that never got published? Or the con where there were more guests than con-goers?
Sooner or later, a little rain must fall — it's the First Law of Weddings, and makes for great stories at the dead dog party. But perhaps it's time for fandom to stop reminiscing about war scars, and start asking — as a community — "How do we prevent this?"
The essay in whole is excellent and well worth a read.
posted by yomimono at 9:59 AM on April 26, 2018 [8 favorites]


At least some of the tickets are being refunded.

https://www.bleedingcool.com/2018/04/24/further-universal-fancon-fallout-refunds-apologies/
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:39 PM on April 26, 2018


The article also mentions that the convention was incorporated and that there are 25K shares. I realize the con has no money, but who has the shares and what did they do to get those shares? Did they buy them?

Incorporation is incredibly cheap. This is one of those things where people I think see certain words and... assume stuff means more than it really does? You can incorporate with, like, LegalZoom. And incorporation always means you have shares, and usually that number is some arbitrary big number. Chances that any shares in this company changed hands ever are really small, especially outside of the core group of organizers. Possible, sure, but don't read more complications into them being incorporated than are really there.
posted by Sequence at 1:14 PM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Hmm. Interesting. I wonder if the refunds are actually being issued by the con or if they are the result of disputing credit card charges.
posted by tavella at 1:46 PM on April 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Related to Sequence's comment on incorporation: filing for 501(c)3 status is a pain in the neck, and takes a while even if you do the paperwork right (you spend some time filling it out, you send it in, you wait an unpredictable amount of time.) 501(c)3 is basically the bit of law that defines non-profits and what qualifies under that particular variant. There are others, but vast numbers of non-profits putting on events like this will be 501(c)3 not something else.

Basically, you can be a non-profit org without any of that, but if you want donations to be tax-deductible, or you want to qualify for tax exemption, or various other benefits (some kinds of grants, some kinds of state/city/whatever planning assistance, often rates for rentals/etc.) you need to do the paperwork.

On the other hand, orgs that are on top of this do things like "We've filed for 501(c)3 status, until that's approved, any donations are not tax deductible. As soon as they approve us, we'll let you know and what our process for that is." (since people usually need some kind of receipt for tax purposes.)

So it doesn't surprise me at all that they didn't have it right off the bat (or couldn't answer questions about when that might change) but anyone doing that kind of thing should be communicating about it clearly. And not doing so is a red flag.
posted by modernhypatia at 2:36 PM on April 26, 2018


This looks bad:

@valeriecomplex:
OK STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW @BlackGirlNerds AND @JamieBroadnax YOU CANNOT DELETE OUR BYLINES FROM OUR ARTICLES BUT LEAVE THE CONTENT THERE AS IF ITS YOURS!!! DON'T DO IT TO ANOTHER ARTICLE!!
posted by Artw at 5:08 PM on April 26, 2018 [7 favorites]


And follow up:

@surviteensntots
I am in the process of correcting an error made earlier on the @BlackGirlNerds site. No one is intentionally erasing or taking bylines. I am in the process of correcting this. So everyone calm down. Your bylines are being restored. This is on me and my ADHD. I am so sorry.
posted by Artw at 8:06 PM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yeah, you can make up any number of shares that you want, basically. They may have a tiny nominal (called "par") value, but the real value is the market value, which will be nothing in a situation like this, where the organization is first brand new and then plainly insolvent. So "vanishing" shares here won't tell you anything about any money that may have been embezzled; they don't carry any value to be the medium through which funds would be embezzled. Though knowing who holds them might be interesting in filling out the narrative in other ways. I mean, in theory this could be a good ol'-fashioned promotion scam, but that seems a bit elaborate for these circumstances.
posted by praemunire at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2018


To further clarify the byline thing--I'm inclined to believe that this is a technical issue rather than intentional, but also, like, why did this site ever have someone in charge of managing the Wordpress users who didn't understand how Wordpress permissions. The kind of thing that's totally normal if unfortunate on a hobby site, but if you're trying to be treated like a serious publication, it should never have happened in a million years.
posted by Sequence at 8:34 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


> ...if you're trying to be treated like a serious publication, it should never have happened in a million years.

oh hey whoops
posted by ardgedee at 9:48 AM on April 27, 2018


@levarburton
As an early supporter, I am extremely distressed and disappointed by the sh*t show that #UniversalFanCon has become. Thank God for #WICOMICON
posted by Artw at 10:40 AM on April 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I expect there will be weird twists and turns as the story unfolds, but my guess so far is that this is a story of some deliberate con artists and some well-meaning fans, and the answer to a bunch of these How Could They Not Have Known questions will be that when the questions were posed, the con artists explained very convincingly that they'd already done Thing X and talked to Person Y and everything was Just Fine.

This makes me incredibly sad. Some small number of people got to split up something like $50K. So for a score of from $10K to $20K each they willingly did THIS MUCH DAMAGE.
posted by Zed at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


If I had fucked up so badly that Levar Burton was personally disappointed in me, I think I would probably just shrivel up and die on the spot. Jesus.

On the bright side, the WICOMICON pop-up con was super fun even without grading on the 'had five days to put it together' curve. Here's a walk-through; you can see me behind my table at the 4:10 mark.
posted by nonasuch at 6:56 PM on April 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm still waitng for ConCon, a conference about attending, selling and throwing conferences. Attendees can practice panel questions, how to avoid filk singers, standing in lines, sleeping in the closet when they come back to find a fursuit disco orgy in their room, and training their stomachs for bad, greasy food and the heady stank of thousands of overexcited nerds.

This of course leads to ConConCon, which is how to throw fake conferences as a con artist. Every year they raise a bunch of money through crowdfunding and ticket sales, rent a single bed Motel Six room for an hour and let all the attendees figure it out when they get there.
posted by loquacious at 8:46 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


loquacious, just thinking about ConCon has inspired me to come up with some of my own cons:

ConAirCon - for fans of the classic Nic Cage action flick

AirConCon - for fans of high energy bills, and staying cool and refreshed in summer

SconeCon - for fans of delicious English pastries

ConicCon - for fans of all sorts of cones (though we will use a tricky font to ensure profitable confusion)

ConkyCon - for fans of intentionally glitching old Donkey Kong cartridges to see what kind of weird shit will happen.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:53 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


I mean, there is a con for convention organizers. Which I now sort of wish the Fancon organizers had attended.
posted by nonasuch at 5:47 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]




CanConCon - for media professionals navigating the CRTC's Canadian content regulations
CanCanCon - for fans of high-kicking chorus lines
CancunCon - for fans of the Mexican resort city and the Riviera Maya
ConocoCon - for fans of the Continental Oil and Transportation Company, pre-Philips 66 merger
CacaoCon - for chocoholics (just a little surprised that this doesn't already exist)

Meanwhile, it looks like the bylines on BGN have been restored so at least that part of this shitshow appears to have been resolved.
posted by mhum at 1:27 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Oh man, Dripclave (from artw's link.). I grew up in the DC area and went to a Disclave or two, so the slow unravelling of what happened that weekend sticks in my mind. I.e., we first heard about it just as an accidental flood, then all the details started to, ahem, seep out.
posted by tavella at 2:03 PM on April 30, 2018


I go to Capclave (the successor to Disclave, now in Gaithersburg) and I'm pretty sure I heard the story within an hour of arriving at the con the first time I went to it.
posted by nonasuch at 6:47 PM on April 30, 2018


I was gonna say they should put the 2018 Austin Donk Contest on the list, but I think they actually did pull that off, to some extent.
posted by muddgirl at 8:45 PM on April 30, 2018


GGC makes the list for what turns out to be a bit of a nontroversy involving idiots crying “reverse racism” that in no far affected the actual con.
posted by Artw at 8:57 PM on April 30, 2018




Twitter thread from Karnythia: Rumor has it UFC is 650k in the hole.
posted by rewil at 1:53 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Flanvention II was another media con cancelled the night beforehand.

I was about to say with all confidence that I'd been at that last Disclave but then I checked the date and I wasn't on the east coast. Ah, memory, it was nice while it lasted...
posted by Zed at 2:17 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


If they genuinely rented the BCC, that must have contributed substantially to the deficit. Someone was discussing the finances of an anime con that used to use the BCC, and according to them it had a budget of around a million and about half of that was the convention center. I'm assuming that probably also included the furnishing and decoration side of facilities, but I would guess it still takes a six figure number to rent it for a long weekend.

But I'm assuming there must be some kind of substantial deposit paid at booking. And the same for the hotel room block. I just don't know where they would have found enough money to go that far in debt, so to speak, with only $67K.
posted by tavella at 5:16 PM on May 1, 2018


I guess this is the “official” story: The Story Behind FanCon’s Controversial Collapse

This bit strikes me as... off.

“It was hubris,” said Butler, in his only interview discussing the implosion. Hubris — and, as he went on to suggest, a surprising lack of enthusiasm for diversity among fans. If more fans had bought tickets, he said, the whole debacle could have been avoided. “Unfortunately, they just didn’t,” he said. “I should have known better. But I let my belief in this nonexistent community blind me.”
posted by Artw at 3:14 PM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


No, it's the children who are wrong.
posted by tobascodagama at 3:23 PM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


The guy goes on to blame his Twitter followers for not being sufficiently supportive, so... yeah. The usual self-sabotaging defensiveness of your average indie business owner who fucked up and can't just admit it -- just on a bigger scale.
posted by inconstant at 3:45 PM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


They don't address the initial Kickstarter at all! Their original goal was $25,000 which wouldn't even pay for 1/4 of their hall deposit after taxes & fees! And they were planning for profit??
posted by muddgirl at 3:53 PM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Ok that's an exaggeration but that Kickstarter money was slotted for hotel rooms & guest fees, too.
posted by muddgirl at 3:59 PM on May 7, 2018


@jazmine_joyner:
So I am sure you have all read the Vulture piece about #FanCon, and how the reporter not only just interviewed the organizers , but also failed to talk to the BGN writers who left, and to the people actually affected by #FanCon being cancelled.

(Thread)
posted by Artw at 11:17 PM on May 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


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